People of the tents

Jewish existence as a reminder of spiritually and decency.

Rabbi Berel Wein,

Judaism President Rivlin address the study session
President Rivlin address the study session

Our father Yaakov now embarks on a long, tortuous journey that represents the story of his life. In recounting his story before Pharaoh, when he descended to live in Egypt, he was brutally frank in assessing his life: “My years compared to those of my ancestors have been few, and they have not been good ones.” 

From the onset, he swims in a sea of troubles. He is robbed by his nephew, deceived by his father-in-law in every possible facet of their relationship, always the outsider, and a permanent stranger in a strange land. His lifetime has become, in rabbinic thought and in historical reality, the template for Jewish existence in exile among the nations and countries of the world. 

Yet Yaakov embarks on this perilously dangerous journey with high hopes and a secure spirit. As he has dreamed, he has been promised by the God of Israel that he would never be forsaken by Heaven. He will remember this dream and its promise throughout the tumultuous events of his lifetime.  Even in his moments of greatest despair, he will be comforted by the Heavenly commitment that guarantees his success and survival. 

This belief, that Heaven would never fully abandon him, becomes the defining feature of his life and activities. In this he has set the matrix for all the succeeding generations of the Jewish people. In all of our struggles, we believe that somehow God will eventually raise us and deliver us from oppression and cruelty. And so it has been.

The fundamental difference between Yaakov and Eisav is revealed to us at the beginning of their life stories. Eisav is a man of the fields, out in the world, hail and hearty. The private Eisav, the child who is protective of his father, who yearns for spiritual blessings and for generational continuity is overshadowed by the public Eisav who is physically powerful, aggressive and impulsive, hedonistic and given to violence and cruelty towards others. All of this is included in being a man of the fields, one who is influenced and immediately reacts to every passing wind that blows. 

Yaakov is also physically powerful and is even capable of struggling successfully with angels and humans. He is financially successful against daunting odds and is, in essence, a person of the tents, of study halls and the pursuit of knowledge, and of gratitude towards God and other human beings.  His private persona overshadows his public life; his innate modesty tempers his assessments of his very accomplishments. 

In this also we find the Jewish experience throughout the centuries. Though we are fully capable of being people of the fields, as Israel has taught the world over the past decides, we are still basically people of the tents struggling for decency and spirituality in a very decadent and dangerous, Eisav-driven world. Our lot in life is to succeed in this struggle.